Prayer That Makes Sense

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 17
July 24, 2022
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary : Luke's telling of the "Lord's Prayer" is shorter than the account found in Matthew. Here, Jesus includes a couple of illustrations that help us to understand. Making sense of prayer is easier some days than others, but it should always be an important part of every believer's life.

Several years ago, prayer in schools was being hotly debated around the country. During that time a cartoon appeared in a publication where a teacher comes upon a group of students who were all kneeling in a circle shooting dice. She quickly sized up the situation and said, "Oh, thank goodness! You're playing dice. For a minute I thought you were praying!"

Prayer still gets a bad rap these days. Politics enters the discussion, and we all know how politics and religion don't mix. People who pray are sometimes looked on with disdain or with pity. Some people think of prayer as an exercise in futility, and that those who pray are just wasting their time and effort. Others think prayer is just so much "mumbo jumbo" and that anyone who prays is putting their faith in nothing at all.

But that is certainly not what Jesus thought! All four gospels mention Jesus praying, and Luke is a good example. After Jesus' baptism, he was praying when the Holy Spirit descended on him. Several times, Luke points out that Jesus has just spent time privately in prayer. In Luke, chapter 10, Jesus, rejoicing in the Spirit, addressed God repeatedly as "Father," which he now instructs his followers to do in this most famous prayer.ax81 3

When you pray

Jesus spoke this prayer in response to a request from one of his disciples. We don't know who asked, when he asked, or where he asked. All we know is that he asked, "Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples." We might like to know the details. Who asked? What prompted that disciple to ask on that day? Where exactly were they? When did this all take place? How is it that Luke, with great narrative skills, did not include any of these facts in his account?

Perhaps the absence of answers to all these questions is explained by how often Jesus prayed. The disciples saw him praying so often that it was difficult to remember the exact day and place and time when he gave them this prayer. It was not unusual for Jesus to pray. Just the opposite was true. Could they even remember a day when Jesus did not pray? The days with Jesus were mostly great days, and as they lived and learned from him, it finally occurred to one of them to ask Jesus to teach them to pray. It was obviously of utmost importance to Jesus; maybe this was something they should learn for themselves. So one of them asked.

Jesus began to teach them, saying, "When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name ...." His model prayer is 38 words long (in the NRSV; it varies slightly in other translations). But in those few words Jesus lays out some dramatic and far-reaching goals that go far beyond the reach of most prayers:

These are big -- in both size and scope! One writer said, "When you think about it, each petition and phrase Jesus gives is a nearly all-encompassing reality."

Could it be that Jesus is not giving us a list of certain requests, but rather telling us that there is nothing we cannot bring to God in prayer?

Perseverance in prayer

Jesus follows his prayer with two examples of perseverance in prayer that help to illuminate his model prayer.

Each of the examples Jesus gives involves asking. In the first, Jesus tells of approaching a friend at midnight because a visitor has just arrived and the homeowner has no bread to give him. While the friend has good reasons not to get up -- the door is locked and the children are in bed -- Jesus says the friend will get up, not because of the friendship, but "at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs." Jesus is not saying that God gives begrudgingly when we make a pest of ourselves in prayer. Sometimes, Jesus' sayings illustrate the opposite of what is true about God.

Ask, seek, knock

The second example starts with one of the most well-known promises in the New Testament. "Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. Everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened." That is followed immediately by Jesus' questions about what we give our children when they ask. Would anyone give a snake instead of a fish, or a scorpion instead of an egg? "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"

When the answer doesn't come

So, all we have to do is ask and seek and knock. and God comes through for us! It's amazing and faith-building! But -- and you already know what's coming next -- what about when so many people have asked, searched or knocked and did not hear, find or have the door opened for them they thought they needed so badly. Unanswered prayer, or prayer that isn't answered in a timely (as we define timely) fashion, is a problem for anyone who has ever prayed.

It's probably one of the reasons people leave their faith. A pastor who served in Kentucky recalls a whole family leaving both the church and their faith because of unanswered prayers. This family of five saw their youngest child, a boy 4 years old, fall ill with a severe childhood cancer. For about 9 months they took him to several different doctors and went to a children's hospital with a great reputation. While all of this was going on, they solicited the prayers of people in many churches. Their pastor visited and prayed often. But after nine months, their son died. The boy's father could not believe God would not answer their prayers. He took his family out of the church and said they were done with God.

Making sense of prayer

How do we come to an understanding of prayer? Specifically, how do we make sense of today's scripture that reaches such grandeur as both the "Lord's Prayer" and the promises about "ask, seek and knock?" We see the "highs" of this passage, but we've all experienced the sense of loss and defeat when the answer doesn't come as we want it to.

There are some clues in all this that help us. The first clue is found early in Jesus' model prayer. "Father, hallowed be your name ...." Recognizing, and addressing God as Father sets the order of things right at the start. Understanding that God is our heavenly Father has far-reaching implications. The Father looks out for the very best interests of the children. And while children of all ages don't like to admit it, their father, assuming he was a good person, usually did the right thing, even when they were sure he was wrong.

A second clue is also found in Jesus' prayer, "Your kingdom come." The reality of God's kingdom affects how we pray. Understanding "Ask and it will be given you" points us to the need to seek God's kingdom, even, or especially, in our prayers. In Matthew's account of the Lord's Prayer, we see the phrase, "Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." Like the first clue, this one points us to the fact that God's kingdom (and his will) is what we are all striving for. We want God's kingdom to come, acknowledging that there are things we don't understand about it this side of heaven.

A third clue, found in the example immediately following Jesus' prayer, points us to the importance of persisting in prayer and not giving up. Jesus is not comparing God to the neighbor begrudgingly giving his neighbor bread, but rather he is saying that if a man like that can hear and help us, how much more will our heavenly Father hear and help us.

Finally, there's a fourth clue, or an affirmation of the first clue, to our understanding. We noted in the first "clue" that the Father has the best interests of the children in what he does. This is emphasized again as Jesus gives the examples of us giving good gifts (no snakes or scorpions!) to our children, and how much more God will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask.

The Holy Spirit in this passage is probably a subject for another day, but let's agree that it is the Holy Spirit who is with us always and everywhere we go.

The rest of the story

That pastor from Kentucky did finally hear from the family that left the church following the death of their son. After a couple of years, and after the pastor had been appointed to another church, he received a call from the father. He spoke of how God had been at work in his heart and in his life. He reached the point where he could look past the tragedy of his son's death to see the goodness of God in other ways and people and circumstances in his life. He gradually recognized that it was God that got him and his family through a very hard time.

Your story is still being told. Are you spending time with God in prayer? "When you pray, say, 'Father, hallowed be your name ....'"


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